Writing and updating your will

Having a will is important, but many of us haven’t got round to writing one yet. The task is a lot simpler than you might think.


Nobody likes to think about the possibility of dying, which is probably why so many people don’t have a will. Drafting a will is simple, and requires much less effort than you might expect. Considering how much easier you’ll make your family’s life if you leave a will, you should make one as soon as possible.


The risks of not having a will

If you die without leaving specific instructions for what you intended to happen, the state steps in, and divides things up in terms of the Intestate Succession Act of 1987.

All of your outstanding debt will get settled in full first, including the legal costs of winding up your estate, which may involve selling things to produce the necessary funds. What’s left is divided equally among the surviving members of the family, subject to rules laid out in the Act.

The two main risks are that your family might have to sell things to cover the debt, and that people might inherit who you might not feel are deserving.

Tip: Start reducing your debt so that your family doesn’t have to pay for it when you’re no longer here.


Don’t I need a lawyer?

If you want to divide your estate in a very specific way, or use a lot of special conditions, then it might be worthwhile seeking professional assistance. A lawyer can certainly help you draft the most clear, unalterable document possible.

The main advantage of using a lawyer is that, if your descendants try to contest the will in court, a lawyer is more likely to have used language that isn’t open to interpretation.


The DIY approach

If using a lawyer isn’t an option for you, you can draft a will on your own that the state will consider just as legally binding as one you paid for.

If you find formal language difficult, you can find off-the-shelf wills at most newsagents, and a number of free templates are available online. Using one of these is as simple as filling in the blanks, and while it won’t provide as many options as using a lawyer would, it’s still better than leaving no will at all.


What makes a will legal?

For the will to be considered a binding document, it needs to meet a few simple conditions. First, you need to be at least 16, and you have to be able to understand what the effect of your choices will be.

You need to put the date clearly at the top, and sign every page, not just the last one. You’ll also need two witnesses to do the same, and these should preferably be people who don’t stand to gain. The law puts limits on the amount that a witness is allowed to inherit.


Updating a will

Changing the terms of an existing will is simple: just write a new one. The most important thing to remember when updating a will is to clearly state the date, which establishes its authority over any past documents.

Most lawyers actually encourage you to review your will every five years, to make sure you still agree with it. A lot can happen in that time - a new child might need to be added, or a relative removed. Regularly updating your will means that if you die unexpectedly, your true wishes are most likely to be reflected.

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